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Pak-Saudi spat over financing radical 'Madrassas' in Pakistan
In Pakistan over 50 per cent of 'Madrassas' (seminaries) are either directly or indirectly funded by the Saudi government or by the Saudi philanthropists. Thereupon, Pakistan felt that Saudi Arabia could significantly help it by denying funds to those 'Madrassas' who were spreading extremism or sectarian views.
Pakistan had also raised this issue before Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al Faisal when he had visited Islamabad in January 2015. After killing of 134 students and nine others in Peshawar in December 2014, Pakistan declared war on terror and formulated a 20-point 'National Action Plan', which also envisaged accountability of 'Madrassas' (seminaries) in number of aspects, including their receiving foreign funds.

Notably, Saudi Arabia drew criticism in Pakistan over the issue by a section of media and by a federal minister too. This was not taken well by the Saudi authorities and Pakistan was advised to avoid embroiling the Kingdom on the issue of funding extremist 'Madrassa' in Pakistan.

Pakistan's Federal Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination, Rias Hussain Pirzada stirred a controversy by publicly accusing (Islamabad, January 20,2015) Saudi Arabia of creating instability across the Muslim world, including in Pakistan through allocating money for promoting its Islamic ideology and asserted that time had come to stop the influx of Saudi money into Pakistan.

In the history of Saudi-Pakistan relations it was a first incident when Saudi Arabia was forthrightly criticised by a Pakistani federal level government minister who virtually echoed Pakistan government's views on cold relations between the two countries over the issue following which Pakistan's interior ministry officials als held meeting with Saudi Embassy in Islamabad on the directives of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Subsequently, the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad divulged (February 5, 2015) that it had informed Riyadh of Pakistani concern about the funding of Pakistani religious seminary. When issue of Saudi funding to Pakistani seminary also made rounds in the sessions of the Pakistani National Assembly, State Minister for Education, Mian Mohd Baligh ur Rehman disclosed that permission of Pakistan government would be mandatory for Saudi funding to any institution and the same would be done only though government channel.

Meanwhile, it was estimated by the US authorities that financial support of abut US $100 million a year was making it way from the Gulf Arab states to an extremist recruitment network in Pakistan's Punjab province.

Later Saudi Arabia, through its Mission in Islamabad denied (February 9,2015) of funding 'extremist mindset' through its financial support of religious seminaries in Pakistan and claimed that financial assistance is extended only after receiving written clearance from the Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as getting confirmed that financial assistance was in public interest.

Saudi Arabia also claimed that financial assistance was given without any sectarian consideration(s). Pakistan foreign office swiftly attempted to calibrate the issue in view of solid bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and its spokeswoman blamed (Februaruy10, 2015) a section of media propagating for a false impression that Saudi Arabia was funding the 'extremist mindset' in Pakistan through its financial support to religious seminaries. However, she accepted that informal channels of foreign funding to Pakistani seminaries were being brought under strict and tighter scrutiny in the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism.

Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister paid a three day (March 4-6, 2015) official visit to Saudi Arabia. This was his third visit to the Kingdom as earlier in January 2015, Nawaz Sharif had visited Saudi Arabia twice, once to enquire health of former King Abdullah bin Abualaziz than to attend his funeral on January 22,2015. However, this was Nawaz Sharif's first visit to the Kingdom after taking over as Prime Minister in 2013. Nawaz Sharif gave prominence to his visit to Saudi Arabia by missing crucial Senate elections in Pakistan, held on March 5, 2015.

Nawaz Sharif and Saudi King Slaman held talks (Riyadh, March 5, 2015) on bilateral and regional issues. While both the countries vowed to jointly fight terrorism, it was reported that Saudi Arabia was keen to boost the number of Pakistani troops in the Kingdom to fight with terrorism, posed by the Islamic State.

However, the media reports added that Pakistan was wary of increasing its security relation with Saudi Arabia as it did not want to get embroiled in relations with Saudis which only exposed Pakistan to new controversies. Meanwhile, as expected, the Gulf media also reported that the two countries were facing challenges in their bilateral relations as the simmering issue of foreign funding of Pakistani 'Madrassas' topped the Pakistani agenda of its 20-point 'National Action Plan' to wipe out terrorism from the country.

Earlier, Saudi King Salman's 'special invitation' to Nawaz Sharif to visit the Kingdom had virtually created ripples in the diplomatic circles as invitation was received in the backdrop of some recent bilateral developments causing uneasy relations between the two countries. It was primarily criticism of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan about extending financial support and undisclosed funding for extremist and terrorist groups and seminaries (Madrassas). In Pakistan, Saudi donors have been accused of quietly funding terror groups who are sympathetic to the Saudi Arabia's hard line version of Islam.

Pakistan claimed to have an 'iconic bilateral relationship' with Saudi Arabia. People of Pakistan highly revere relations with Saudi Kingdom. According to an opinion poll, carried out in 2013 by Washington DC based international research agency viz. Pew Research Center, Pakistanis hold the most favorable perception about Saudi Arabia as 95 per cent Pakistani viewed it favorably and none expressing negative view.

Saudi Arabia hosts more than 1.7 million Pakistanis, whose foreign remittance contributes substantially to the economy of Pakistan. Even annual trade volume between the two countries exceeds US$ 4.5 billion.

Saudi Arabia always remained on the forefront of extending financial help to Pakistan to save its fragile economy on number of occasions. In February 2015, Saudi Arabia gave US$ 1.5 billion to Pakistan to bail out its rupee through Pakistan Development Fund, which is set up to channel money from friendly countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE to Pakistan.

Since Pakistan has formidable bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, issue of Saudi funding Pakistani seminaries is not going to damage their relations and would be sorted out amicably by them.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of merinews.com. In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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